“Once you lose the quality, you lose the work.” This simple philosophy has driven Newcastle-based John Foley and Son from its incorporation back in 1957 to its position now as one of the North East’s leading tiling contractors.
This month, TSJ spoke with the company’s managing director, Nick Foley, about the importance of training, the challenges of being a finishing trade and the surprisingly positive story of the post-pandemic construction sector.
Foley’s grandfather, Jack, started the business in 1957. He’d originally been employed as a foreman for a different tiling company, but grew tired of doing the majority of the work for someone else, and decided to set out on his own. Somewhere around 1970, Nick’s father entered the business, joining on as a fixer and working six years in that capacity before moving into the office. This touches on another key ethos Foley repeated throughout our conversation: “We’ve always been a company that says, if you haven’t done it, we don’t think you’ve got the right to tell someone else how to do it.” As such, both Jack Foley and his son “served their time” on the tools before taking on more managerial roles in the organisation. Naturally, current MD Nick carried on this tradition, taking up the tools in 1997. “I was 15 or 16, and I started doing weekends on site initially. Then at about 18, I became a full-time tiler, and served my time with the company as well.”
Working for the family business has had its advantages and disadvantages, Foley says. “It’s a tricky thing, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard to run a family life and a family business. Some of the advantages are: it’s yours, you own it. You’re not working for someone else, you’re working for the family name and trying to pride yourself on that.”
Legacy and loyalty are important concepts to Foley, not merely from a personal standpoint 4
but a strategic one as well. Back in the ‘70s, Foley and Son started working for new housebuilders, “almost inventing the subcontracting trade,” according to Nick, as prior to this, most builders simply used their own in-house tilers. Once it became clear that Foley and Son offered “a different class” of work, however, the company’s profile escalated quickly, and it began subcontracting for several other builders, “both new housing and the smaller builder who did one-off properties”.
Since that time, the company has continuously prioritised quality as its primary selling point. “We try to keep that as our main mission, so we’re offering a different quality to what you’d get anywhere else.” As a rough measure of quality, Foley says, he only employs people who he’d be happy to have work in his own house. “That’s what I always think: would I be happy to have them come and work in my house? And, as we stand today, I’d say 100% yes.” The benefits of a high-quality workforce are obvious, particularly in avoiding excessive complaints and remedial work, Foley says. “I don’t ever want a phone call to say they’re not happy with our workmanship, and it’s a rarity we’d ever get that.” In fact, he estimates up to 90% of the company’s remedial work results from the quality of the other trades involved in a project.
During certain high-pressure periods, the demand for labour can be so intense that it’s tempting to forego quality just to get jobs done. “For instance, last year was chaotic, it just needed people to stick squares and oblongs on walls, and people weren’t bothered how they got there.” For Foley, however, compromising on quality wasn’t an option: “The thing is, the labour was not there last year, even when you required it, and if it was there it wasn’t something I was prepared to bring into our business.” This meant the company had to begin addressing the skill shortage itself.
Filling the gap
The root of the problem, of course, is training (or the lack thereof). The problem first began around 2008, when the recession hit, Foley says. Prior to that time, the company would take on an apprentice each year, and generally one would qualify each year in turn. Unfortunately, when the economy dipped, the company’s spare cash – and with it, its ability to spend money on training – was diminished. “I think people let it fall by the wayside when they couldn’t afford it. And then it became less of a habit. I can’t speak for other trades as such, but the general consensus is that we didn’t train enough people from 2008 to 2018, and in recent times that seems to have come back and caught people out.”
And so, feeling the labour shortage most acutely three or four years ago, John Foley and Son made the proactive call to reprioritise apprenticeships. The company currently employs three: a 17 year-old, a 20 year-old and a 25 year-old mature apprentice, and Foley is working hard to ensure all three quality as full-time tilers. “Not all of them do, but we’ve had a good run with them lately,” he says.
Sadly though, the company’s willingness to take on apprentices is only one part of the equation: “The problem we face now is a lack of colleges.” No college in Newcastle teaches tiling at present, meaning the closest institution available to John Foley’s apprentices is Leeds College of Building, which is already heavily oversubscribed (the company’s 25 year-old apprentice, for example, has been unable to get onto a course at all). Beyond that, Foley points out, the nearest training colleges are located in Glasgow to the north and Manchester to the south. All of this combines with significant administrative cost to make training a very difficult proposition for 4
many companies to afford.
None of this changes Foley’s view on the subject however: good training is not only beneficial, it’s vital to keep the company – and ultimately the entire industry – afloat. In line with its focus on quality work, the company places great pride in its training regime. “Without blowing our own trumpets too much, if someone in the North East approached a tiler and they’d been trained at John Foley’s, they wouldn’t ask any other questions. If they’ve been trained here, and I’m quietly confident the industry would agree, that’s enough to show they’re good.” According to Foley, these results are only achievable by giving apprentices the time and attention necessary to learn properly. All of the company’s apprenticeships last 4 years, and it encourages trainees to study up to NVQ level 3, beyond the strictly necessary level 2 requirement. “I went to college,” Foley recalls, “and at the time I didn’t see the benefits of it – I’d been tiling for three years. It’s good to have an understanding of those things though, even if the more intricate techniques may rarely get used.”
Having made the conscious effort to replenish its labour force, John Foley and Son now stands at a still lean 14 employees. “We have 12 tilers, of which three are apprentices. Office-wise, it’s just myself and my sister works part-time in the afternoons, dealing with customer care and the remedial side of things.” While it may seem slim, this team is currently working on twenty sites, primarily new housing developments. Commercial housebuilders have been the company’s main clients for several years at this point, having taken the decision to step away from domestic work. “Mainly because there are companies in the North East, smaller one or two-man bands, who can take on that kind of work. I took a decision, with the pressure coming from new housing, that we would focus on that – I felt like I owed it to the housebuilders.”
In hindsight, that pivot seems to have been a wise one. The company tiled around 1200 houses last year by Foley’s count, averaging around 90-100 every month. “The volume is there, the quality is there and the money is constant – we’re getting paid on time,” he points out. For a specialised team of tile fitters, Foley says, these housing projects are simply the most efficient use of their time. Domestic work, by contrast, demands a subtly different skillset, requiring more general construction capabilities and often more client management. “There are some guys here who can do that, but I think we’ve reached a point where we just want to work with tiles.” Building sites solve this issue, generally offering a more streamlined, straightforward process for each individual trade. By the time Foley’s team arrives on site, all the substrate and subfloor preparation is already taken care of, and the tilers can focus on what they do best.
Of course, that doesn’t mean housebuilding is without its challenges. Indeed, the reliance on other trades is something of a double-edged sword for Foley. “Everyone before us, we 4 rely on them doing a good job. From site to site, builder to builder, foreman to foreman, that all depends. But last year, certainly with the volume of work, we found ourselves having to get over a lot more workmanship before us.” Compounding this, a perennial problem for any finishing trade is the time crunch caused by inflexible deadlines. Every time the earlier trades, like electricians or plumbers, lose weeks due to weather or labour, the time the latter trades get shrinks. “So we do feel a lot of pressure because we’re one of the last trades in there. If we were meant to have six weeks until handoff, all of a sudden we could have three, and that really puts the pressure on us.”
A full recovery
In some respects, pressure is a positive. It’s better to be busy than not, after all, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic and its disastrous impact on construction. Foley echoes the sentiment of many contractors who have found the industry’s bounce back surprisingly fierce. “I would say, since Covid, we have not slowed down once. We were thrown back into it. Covid seemed to disappear off building sites before it disappeared anywhere else.”
Given the risks, the decision to return required just as much attention and consideration as the work itself. “We weren’t forced back in though, it was a choice. I shut before anyone else in the North East with Covid. It was a difficult time to balance what was right for the business with what was morally right.” Foley considers the members of his team friends, and decided he wasn’t comfortable putting them at any risk. “So we stuck together and kept in touch. And then as people started feeling comfortable to come back, we started to discuss it.” Fortunately, the basic nature of construction sites made them safer than many environments, easing the transition back. “The building industry came back after everyone else. It was well set up to deal with the risks at the time.”
In conversation with Foley, it’s evident he never lets a problem stay one for long, preferring to address issues proactively. “Coming back out of the pandemic, it was: we’ve lost eight weeks of work, now we’ve got to find them again.” Fortunately, he says, there’s never been too little work for the team – in fact more often it’s been the opposite. Another example of this can-do attitude can be found in the company’s handling of waste material. While it’s become more and more difficult, in Foley’s estimation, to return unused tiles to the manufacturer, the company has found other ways to handle surplus, and give back to the community at the same time.
“We’ve started doing charity drives twice a year. Within reason, for surplus stock or cancellations and tiles we can’t take back, I’ll just post on social media asking people to come and make a donation to take what they want.” At the end of the year, the company takes all the donations its received and sends the money to local organisations that support homeless people and animals.
As successful as John Foley and Son has been since the pandemic, there’s no telling what the future holds. “I’m a business owner but I’m not a mystic,” Nick admitted, but before he had time to elaborate much further, he was interrupted by a call from a client – and that can only be a good sign!